Long-finned pilot whales do indeed have very long flippers! However, the ‘pilot’ part of their name comes from an old theory that each pod is piloted by a single leader.
We now know this is not the case, but the name has stuck. Pilot whales are actually large dolphins; they are the second largest member of the oceanic dolphin family (second only to orcas in size).
Pilot whales are extraordinarily social; their strong bonds with one another motivate them to stick together through thick and thin, even when that means putting themselves at risk.
Other names: Atlantic pilot whale, Pothead whale, Caa'ing whale, Blackfish
IUCN conservation status: Least Concern
What do long-finned pilot whales look like?
As their name suggests, they have two very long flippers; they are crescent-shaped and have pointy tips. Adult pilot whales are black or dark grey and have a lighter grey saddle patch on the back behind the dorsal fin and an anchor-shaped patch on the underside. Pilot whale babies are paler coloured. Pilot whales are long, robust whales and have a thick-set, curved (sometimes hooked), and very prominent dorsal fin. The head is bulbous with no beak. Male pilot whales are larger than females, and they have a more bulbous forehead and chunkier dorsal fin.
What’s life like for a long-finned pilot whale?
Pilot whales have a very sociable and inquisitive nature. They are long-lived and live together in multi-generational, tight-knit, stable pods. There are usually more females than males as their pods are built on units of mothers and their offspring. Baby pilots grow up within the safety of the pod they are born into and remain within the same pod for life. Older females or those who are not giving birth themselves, help mothers in the pod care for their babies. Pilot whales are strongly bonded to each other and do everything together; resting, hunting, socialising, playing and travelling as a unified pod. The most important thing in their lives is each other and they are incredibly loyal. There can be anything from 10 to 20 all the way up to a hundred pilot whales living together in a pod. Huge multi-pod get-togethers of hundreds or even a thousand pilot whales give ample opportunity for males to mix and breed with females from other families.
Pilot whales are often active at the surface; they may spyhop (poke their heads out of the water), or lobtail (lift their flukes out of the water and splash them down). They are also regularly seen resting (logging) in unison, close to each other at the surface.
Sometimes they will approach vessels moving at slow speeds and will often allow slow-moving whale-watch boats to approach them.
Pilot whales can dive to depths of over 600m for 10 to 16 minutes at a time to hunt. They mostly feed at night in deep water using echolocation to find prey.
The total worldwide population size may number several hundred thousand whales.
What do long-finned pilot whales eat?
Mainly squids and octopus; these cephalopods are definitely their favoured food. They do sometimes eat fish such as mackerel, hake, herring and cod. Their squid eating lifestyle is evident when looking inside their mouths as they have far fewer teeth than dolphins that prefer fish. Pilot whales ‘ram and suck’ squid into their mouths and so their mouths are adapted for sucking rather than grasping prey.
Where do long-finned pilot whales live?
Long-finned pilot whales live throughout the cold and temperate waters of the southern hemisphere and in the North Atlantic Ocean; they have a wide distribution around the globe. They prefer deep offshore environments but do occur in coastal waters in some areas. Long-finned pilot whales are generally nomadic, although some populations are resident all year round in the same location. Their movements are principally dictated by sources of food in the ocean – they move around searching for good supplies of squid.
The sociable nature of pilot whales extends to other whales and dolphins. They are often seen swimming with oceanic dolphins in mixed-species pods including common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, but also other species such as Atlantic white-sided dolphins and minke whales.
Pilot whales and strandings
Sadly, perhaps the thing that pilot whales are most famous for is their tendency to mass strand on beaches. We simply do not know why large numbers of healthy whales strand together like this. In many cases the cause simply cannot be determined. We are sure that the strong bonds between them and their propensity to stick together and follow one another plays a big role in these stranding events, whatever the underlying reasons might be. Possible causes are navigation mistakes when following prey or travelling (perhaps due to irregularities in the magnetic field), or possible parasitic infections resulting in neurological disorders, or perhaps the whole pod simply sticks together to support an ill whale. When human helpers are able to refloat whales returning them to sea, many will return to the beach for a second time. It is likely that the bonds of social cohesion cause these refloated whales to return to shore if others of their group remain in distress. Refloating stranded whales has to be carefully managed to ensure whales leave the beach together, or in large enough groups to offset the impulse to return.
Long-finned pilot whales are one of two species of pilot whale, along with short-finned pilot whales. Their distributions do overlap in some parts of the world and it’s very difficult to distinguish between the two. They differ only slightly in physical size, features, colouration, and pattern. Other living relatives of the pilot whales are the melon-headed whale, the pygmy killer whale, the false killer whale, and Risso's dolphin.
Long-finned pilot whales need your help
The main threats...
- Whaling – the social nature of pilot whales means that unfortunately it is easy for humans to herd them together and push them in a certain direction. Around 850 long-finned pilot whales are still hunted every year in the Faroe Islands. The hunts are controversial as killing methods are inhumane and whale meat is no longer needed for human survival. Hunters use small boats to frighten the whales and herd them into shallow bays in the Faroes, they then slaughter the whole pod in shallow water using large knives. Pilot whales are also hunted elswhere, such as in Greenland.
- Stranding – the intensely social nature of pilot whale snad the strong bonds they share makes them susceptible to mass strandings.
- Pollution – long-finned pilot whales in the North Atlantic have high levels of contaminants including heavy metals in their body tissues. Ocean noise such as commercial shipping, marine construction, airguns used by oil and gas exploration companies and military sonar, is a big threat to these deep water whales that rely on acoustics and echolocation for navigating and finding prey.
- Fishing gear – long-finned pilot whales can become entangled or hooked in many different types of fishing nets, ropes and other equipment, including gillnets, longlines, and trawls. Once entangled, whales may be stuck and unable to escape. Sometimes they swim off with the equipment attached to them and unable to escape completely, they drag it for long distances. Unfortunately they get very tired and are unable to feed properly if this is the case and/ or may suffer severe injury, which may lead to death.